Top Directors Banking on Nostalgia

Kristopher Tapley
Variety

Mel Gibson, Warren Beatty and Robert Zemeckis have a trio of films on offer this month that could appeal to Academy voters longing for a throwback vibe, while Ben Affleck has another on the way in December.

Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” a World War II epic centered on conscientious objector Desmond Doss, feels like a prestige battle picture cut from the Allan Dwan/William Wellman mold.

“One of the best compliments I’ve received is, ‘Wow, it’s like the way they used to make films,’” Gibson said recently on Variety’s “Playback” podcast. “I said, ‘You mean like back in the ‘40s?’ And they said, ‘No, like back in the ’80s’ — like it’s ancient history!”

Such comments are a reflection, the director says, of the fact that the character of the feature-film business has changed. “It’s like chain restaurants or something,” he said. “I believe that if something is good, it’s going to resonate; it’s just going to have a harder time being heard. Films get obliterated by the marketing budgets; nobody has enough nerve to put their money where their mouth is, unless [someone] is wearing spandex.”

Beatty, whose “Rules Don’t Apply” opens Nov. 23, concurs, noting that he came into the business at a time when a film could open and linger in theaters for a year, finding its way to an audience organically. “It was the discussion of the movie that took place between people that would alert people to what the picture might be, what it could be,” he said in a recent Variety interview. “It would be difficult today to make ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ which then ran for many, many, many months. Or, let’s say, ‘A Man for All Seasons.’ No movie stays in theaters a long, long time anymore.”

The number of films released today, versus when Beatty first broke in, makes all the difference. Movies now have much smaller windows in which to perform before the audience moves on to the next big thing in a crush of new releases. With the 1950s-set “Rules Don’t Apply,” Beatty has crafted a film that feels born of that era, a loose period romp packed with ornate sets and a vintage tone that owes a debt to Billy Wilder. It’s just the sort of movie that once would have lingered, but in today’s climate it appears destined to be lost in a glut of awards-season plays, such as “Manchester by the Sea” and “La La Land,” or event movies like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Moana.”

Meanwhile, one of the selling points for Brad Pitt in taking on “Allied,” a spy thriller set in WWII London, was Zemeckis’ nostalgic filmmaking sensibility. “It was like a throwback to the old ’40s films, when you’d see people in cars and you’d see the rear screen, and you know they’re just sitting on a set,” Pitt said at a Q&A for the film. “That was a really fun experience for us.”

But for all its classical texture, “Allied” employs a number of modern digital techniques. “The trick was to make it feel like we were making a ’40s movie, but make it completely photo-real,” said the technology-conscious Zemeckis. “It does have that flavor of the early David Lean movies. When we were shooting the stuff in the sand dunes, I was definitely channeling David Lean. Well, not channeling — I was copying him!”

And speaking of ’40s cinema, Affleck’s “Live By Night,” opening Dec. 25, was inspired by the Warner Bros. gangster pictures of old. But more than just a bunch of actors playing dress-up, it was conceived with traditional visual storytelling ideals in mind.

“I wanted it to feel classic,” Affleck said at a recent screening, “like it could have been made in the ’70s or even the ’40s, not doing too much cutting, not having very tight close-ups, allowing scenes to play and giving the actors space to play across the frame.”

Will Oscar voters celebrate this streak of 2016 cinema anchored in the past? Whether they do or not, the adage holds true: They don’t make ’em like they used to.

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